We translated this report on the Collectivo del Policlinico by Graziella Bastelli as part of a series of articles on this historical experience of self-organisation and communist-feminist activity. The recollections of the comrade are joyous and intense and we recommend watching this extremely inspiring documentary in tandem.
The polyclinic collective formed part of a wider network of political committees in major workplaces and working class areas; you can read more about them in these articles on Magneti Marelli, on Senza Tregua and the political committees in Veneto. The collective’s outstanding character was based on the fact that it included medical students, nurses, porters and doctors, and aimed at the socialisation of the divided knowledge within a project of workers’ control of the clinic. Patients were participating in the regular assemblies of the collective. Workers fought for equal conditions between permanent and precarious staff, they imposed free health services for local workers against the private interests of the bosses of the clinic. The collective supported the occupation of administrative buildings for the establishment of a children’s nursery for hospital workers. They also joined a feminist occupation of an operation theatre for free and safe abortions. The collective was locally linked to similar collectives within the energy sector, railways and various working class neighbourhoods.
Our aim as working class militants is to confront these historical examples with the situation today and to contribute to the debate and practice amongst fellow health workers. The recent NHS strikes have demonstrated that there is a dire need for self-organisation and workers’ independent action.
In terms of understanding, the comrade uses the word ‘barons’ to describe the very elitist, if not semi-feudal character of the medical and university hierarchy at the time. Many of the bosses of the university clinics were embroiled in corruption and had close links with conservative, religious and sometimes fascist circles. She writes about the ‘university workers’ struggles’ for equal wages with the workers directly employed by the hospital – at the time university contracts were used as a form of subcontracts within the hospital, in order to pay less for the same work. So the ‘university workers’ are actually medical workers in the polyclinic.
It is with immense pleasure that I plunge into the sea of memories… ready to revisit with rationality and emotion the richness and limits of the struggles at the Policlinico Umberto I° in Rome, starting from those distant and often confused 1970s, an era which everyone talks about, but too often only in an individual manner. (…)
So I went searching through my archives and those of the polyclinic… among photos, leaflets, posters, articles from old newspapers, some were a little faded, others, better preserved by time, could have been written the day before, very topical both in their analyses and in their demands on the right to health. (…)
I was just savouring the long lapse of time that had passed and all the involutions of the public health system that had so slowly arrived at an enunciation of rights (the Health Reform of ’78), only to then, just as slowly, go backwards where health becomes a commodity, hospitals supermarkets of care, and public health, projected on corporate logic and budget deficits, is suffocated by an invasive and all-encompassing private sector, protected and favoured by all governments/parties/trade unions.
But this is another story, or perhaps the conclusion of this one, because it demonstrates the need to recount ourselves in order to make memories of the experience and resume being protagonists of the indispensable changes in life, so that we can live it.
Let us start from the early 1970s, from the Policlinico Workers and Students Collective. Having separated from the comrades who worked in the popular clinic in San Basilio, the collective of medical students and a few workers, more comrade than worker, began to engage in counter-information on the right to health amidst the power, arrogance and scheming of the university barons. We met every Tuesday in an obstetrics clinic lecture hall, and only later did the now famous ‘workers’ lecture hall’ make a triumphant entry into the struggles of the hospital and into the lives of all the workers. Even now, when the eldest among us, those who have not yet been able to retire, pass in front of the general pathology lecture hall built on the glorious lecture hall, an emotional jolt goes through us and memories multiply in our minds and in our stories!
In the spring of 1971, the comrades of the collective took an active part in the first major mobilisation of university workers, organised by the SUNPU union (national union of university employees). The union was led by a certain Caldarelli who, at the end of the struggle, would ask the workers to ‘give him’ a FIAT 500 for his commitment. The union demanded a salary increase from the university rector, given the frightening difference between the salaries of university workers and those of the employees of the Pio Istituto, also working at the hospital. They all performed identical care duties, working in the university clinics and hospital halls, but received different wages.
This first struggle lasted three months; university workers only worked the shifts that they were paid for, i.e. the same 8am – 2pm shifts like the public employees. The union imposed an end to the strike after obtaining ‘extraordinary compensation’ and many promises. In the assembly at the rectory where the end of the dispute was formally decided, the comrades of the collective voted against it and began to make themselves known to the workers.
Assemblies were planned in various hospitals and clinics, assemblies were held with subcontracted workers, with workers from the Tiburtina factories and with the dismissed workers of a private clinic, Villa Domelia.
During the summer of 1972, the committee for the struggle of day labourers was set up. These were workers who were assigned, almost always without any training, to perform care and cleaning tasks. They were called daily to work in the wards and facility services according to the requests of the ‘head nuns’ and according to the cheese and other earthly offerings they brought as gifts! (Many were peasants.) These workers numbered 272 and together with the comrades of the collective they organised leaflets, mobilisations, meetings with management, even days of strike. One of them, in order to attract the attention of the press and TV, threatened to throw himself off the roof of the paediatric clinic if he was not hired… while the comrades distributed leaflets and organised an assembly in front of the clinic, complete with trumpets! After several months of struggle, the mobilisation of these workers lost steam, while the attempts of the union (the FLO-federation of hospital workers was added to the SUNPU) to demobilise and sell out their demands became increasingly successful.
By December ’72, only 60 ‘day labourers’ were hired permanently… but with this vanguard that led the struggle, new and combative workers entered the collective. The ‘one-eyed’ (“guercio”) Daniele and the ‘little guy’ (“piccoletto”) Totò, Francone, Ottavio, Albertino, Assunta, Maria Teresa, Il Biondo, Franca, Rosa, Antonione… became the points of reference in the clinics… their life stories intertwined with the desire to become protagonists, for the first time, of the world that revolved around them, but that had never seen or listened to them.
This new component of the collective, with a good number of medical students, allowed us to spread the collective in almost all of the university clinics: from obstetrics to otolaryngology, to paediatrics, to neuro, to the medical clinics… only the surgical clinics resisted because they were fiefdoms of entire families (fathers, brothers, sons) of trade unionists and PCI members linked to baron-like interests and their clientele privileges. Among the hospital workers who worked on the wards, at the receptions and in the kitchens (400 in all compared to the 1,500 university workers), we managed to make contact with some who, while being interested and helpful comrades during the actual course of the struggles, would later on turn into instruments of provocation and control of the PCI. This we certainly could have anticipated earlier… given that they acted like macho dickheads towards the collective’s female student comrades and their need to be liked at all costs (hairy chests, seductive looks, verbal endorsement to gender equality… while their wives were left at home!). These wretches tried it on constantly, often going so far as to participate in mobilisations and social occasions only in the hope of getting laid… needless to say… they always and constantly ended up rejected, and while the (female) comrades began the arduous road to unmask these opportunists, the (male) comrades, slower and more attached to certain roles and privileges, defended them by recognising their limitations but counting them among the “comrades who must be helped to grow up”!?!!
In February ’73 we began pushing for free medical services… remember that this was before the health reform, that there were different mutual societies with different health offers, but that we had to pay for everything else… normally the hours of waiting in front of the clinics are nerve-wracking, the patients arrive from 5 a.m. to get their numbers, and suffer harassment and mockery from the super busy ‘gods in white’ in their private clinics who don’t give a damn about the service in the hospital! The comrades of the collective ‘masqueraded’ as patients and started demanding their rights… the other people got involved immediately and after the visits no one paid! Ophthalmologist, obstetrician, ENT… every morning a new health department is organised… the medical barons began to get nervous and realised that the thing is catching on, even without the presence of the comrades of the collective. In the meantime, the collective engaged in counter-information on the various private properties that the doctors owned, on how much time they spent inside their private clinics and how they were ‘ghosts’ at the Polyclinic (where they were formally employed); the comrades mobilised against the so-called ‘pay rooms’… a shameful institution which guaranteed first class care for those with money and which left the poor crammed into the barack-like wards… with a procession of workers they managed to close the pay rooms down!
In August ’73 the SUNPU trade union agreed with the university rector on a specific pension allowance for state employees… needless to say, it primarily benefited the highly qualified employees while the workers only received a few crumbs!
In September ’73 the collective contract for hospital workers came up for renewal, and the collective was present in the assemblies. They proposed reductions in working hours and adequate wage increases, opposing the only demand of the trade union, which was the increase in overtime bonus!
The assemblies at the university clinic also began again. The SUNPU proposed a special allowance; the De Maria allowance also applied to non-hospital staff, as a minimal measure to equalise wages between workers employed by the university and those directly employed by the hospital. The workers rejected this proposal and began to talk about ‘regionalisation’, meaning, the transfer of all university employees working at the Polyclinic to the respective regional collective contract for hospital workers.
In December 1973, the university workers’ struggle began again – the workers had made clear to everyone that the rector and the trade union were taking the piss, while the workers themselves continued to get starvation wages (a maximum of 50,000 lire a month for university workers compared to the 400,000 of the hospital workers!?).
Assemblies were organised in all the clinics… and the number of participating workers increased day by day. The unions disassociated themselves from the struggle and condemned it. The workers resumed work only on the reduced 8am – 2pm shift and decided in the assembly how to guarantee the necessary care services so as not to harm hospitalised patients and emergency facilities. Within a few weeks, the 20 workers who had started the mobilisation turned out to be more than a thousand! Every morning, general assemblies were held in the Polyclinic classrooms in which many comrades from the Autonomous Workers’ Committees (comprising ENEL workers from the energy sector; working class squatters and workers who organised the ‘self-reduction’ of rent and other bills; lawyers, etc.) took part. The Workers’ Assembly was formed, which was the only decision-making instrument to carry on the struggle. Negotiations with the various bosses began, and processions were held throughout Rome. The denunciations against the medical barons and their abuses became the direct testimonies of the hundreds of workers who, in daily assemblies, took the courage to shake off the slime that was drowning their right to health and their working dignity!
From illicit drug testing that used patients as guinea pigs, to corpses locked in refrigerators of the obstetric clinic, to broken lifts, to unusable toilets, to inhuman conditions in the wards, to the cases of corruption and embezzlement by the medical barons, to the denunciation of the murder by two ER doctors, Malizia and Buonaccorsi, who killed a 24 year old woman with a badly executed tracheotomy… the teaching hospital was laid bare and university science was finally presented for what it was: an enormous source of profit to the detriment of the right to health, the duty of teaching, the need for research aimed not at their profit but at the collective good!
The streets of Rome were invaded by hundreds of workers shouting, “The hospital belongs to the people”, “They exploit us, they kill us, they throw us down the drain and call this health care”, “Workers and sick people united in the struggle”, “Free clinics”, “We are pissed off with barons and unions”, “The boss treats us to exploit us, we will destroy him not to make us sick”, “No to the teaching hospital”… the walls of the Polyclinic were filled with writings and posters recounting the wrongdoings of the various barons, their scheming and interests in the private sector, their abuse of patients and workers.
The alliance between workers and patients was something tangible, first by involving them together with their relatives in the clinic assemblies where we explained the reasons for our struggle, then with their numerous participation in the general assemblies where they became direct witnesses of the baron-like injustices and oppression, and finally during social events (to choose one example, the performance by Dario Fò in a packed Stefanini hall). After a complaint made in the assembly, a patient was admitted to a surgical clinic instead of being transferred to a private clinic. Others organised themselves in the wards, beginning to claim their rights: from more decent food, to refusing to be used as guinea pigs, with the doctors using treatment as blackmail, to the publication of lists of surgeries that were too often postponed because of the private patients of the various medical barons. Many leaflets were printed on the right to health and all the complaints were publicised in order to curb and control the unconditional power of the barons and their slaves.
These slaves are the scabs, those totally subservient to baron interests for personal gain (job privileges, second pay in private clinics), many of the trade unionists, and the nuns who, all of them head nurses, are ideal allies of the barons against the sick and the workers.
The attacks from the trade unions and the left-wing parties, led by the PCI, were not long in coming. It rained denunciations, excommunications and threats to suspend everything so as not to be instrumentalised by ‘the violent few’. As soon as the struggle began, the SUNPU agreed with the rector to give 100,000 lira in advances to university workers… in response, 1,500 workers immediately cancelled their union membership!
In January 1974, at the suggestion of the barons, the Minister of Education, Malfatti, proposed a small law to put university and regional (hospital) workers on an equal economic footing… the workers’ assembly rejected it!
In February, the struggle for the free clinics resumed, and the clashes became more and more bitter: some of the barons, in order not to have people demanding free services during their surgeries, called the police and had themselves escorted out of the clinic, others locked themselves inside the rooms, others refused to visit because they ‘felt controlled’… but the workers and users always prevailed and the clinics were guaranteed free to all!
In February, the police charged against the strikes and workers started blockading the gates of the Polyclinic demanding a legal change to get regional contracts for all university workers.
The denunciations and arrests began: Francone did a month in jail, there were 4 other arrest warrants and 49 suspects. The mediator arrived, Prof. Biocca, the ‘red baron’ who, because of his PCI history and his ‘honour’, tried – as the rector’s spokesman- to find a solution! He was removed from the assemblies and ‘Biocca Hangman and Jester’ could be read on many of the hospital walls as he scrambled with bucket and paint to clean them up. Without a shadow of a doubt, he personally denounced workers in struggle.
In April, the law was proposed (which was approved as Law 200) for the transfer of the university workers to the Pio Istituto, a regional body, but it was divided into two articles providing for both economic equality and transfer of employment on demand. Parties, unions, and barons proposed the end of the struggle; the workers decided to remain in assembly until its final approval!
After five months of struggle, on the 30th of April 1974, the law was approved… the workers celebrated their great conquest, which was certainly not an ambiguous and interpretable law, but their ability to have fought independently against powerful enemies with the strength and justness of their own ideas and rights.
Subsequently 1,800 workers, or 80% of university employees, demanded a transfer despite the barons’ threats that they would lose their jobs in the clinics and the fact that both university and regional administration created difficulties and obstructions. The Polyclinic workers were very steadfast and tenacious… they were determined not to sell out their struggles and objectives and to maintain their balance of power through direct participation!
In September ’74 a new struggle began, which had been mobilised for during assemblies of university and hospital workers during the preceding summer: the occupation of the Polyclinic boardroom to win the right as workers to a crèche and nursery school as suitable and welcoming places to take their children while working.
The current one housed only 40 children between the ages of zero and three, had been declared unfit for use by the provincial doctor, its’ equipment was inadequate and the staffing level was poor. More than 30 mothers organised themselves in shifts during working hours to keep everyone’s children in the hall. The hospital board, frightened by this organisational capacity, proposed to the mothers to stay at home with their children while receiving their salaries, but the mothers preferred to be present in the hospital to start the mobilisation and b face-to-face with the other mothers and all the workers. Wonderful processions with little troublemakers shouting: “We have a president who doesn’t understand anything”. The boardroom of the health directorate was full of drawings, balls and bicycles… after only 8 days, the police charged the occupying mothers and workers, but the occupation resumed and lasted almost a year until they obtained spacious premises and new equipment for both the nursery and the kindergarten outside the hospital walls and with adequate staffing.
In October ‘74, the trade unions CGIL-CISL-UIL, as they continued to lose ground, had less and less credibility, and were unable to carry on the role of selling out and co-managing, circulated an infamous leaflet against the comrades of the collective, with which they clearly asked the police and the judiciary to intervene. By creating fear and threatening jail, the authorities were supposed to stop the spreading of a practice of self-organisation and direct participation that was involving an increasing number of workers.
Daniele was arrested for damage, public offense and resistance to a public official, occupation of a public building and criminal association, and his detention, which lasted more than eight months, was particularly harsh. The struggles restarted, the 8-14 shift was resumed, we took to the streets again with marches and demonstrations that, in addition to the usual targets, went to Regina Coeli and the Ministry of Justice to demand freedom for Daniele and the other comrades in jail. The police and the PCI’s anti-strike squads manifested all their rage and violence and the magistracy, through the persecution of Judge Buogo, issued another 6 arrest warrants and 105 notices of offence, which also included 20 mothers who had participated in and managed the boardroom occupation. When the trial was held years later… the Polyclinic workers inaugurated the hall at the Foro Italico where the numerous defendants arrived with their children, bicycles, flyers, pizzas and various sweets… to protest against the fabrication by the barons, the unions and the PCI which target the sacrosanct rights of workers and patients.
In response to the repression against Daniele, more than 600 workers formally denounced themselves of having committed the same ‘crimes’, reclaiming the struggle and objectives for the right to health. The continuous provocations and jail were not able to bring the workers of the Polyclinic back under the management of the unions and the PCI, because the regained dignity and the desire to decide and count as people in a shared identity meant that the habit of delegation and individual sellouts, the only tool offered by the union practice, had been overcome.
“We continue to die in hospital… and the conditions of care and those of the workers are still inhuman. In the wards, there are 45 crammed patients and only one nurse, there is the constant obligation to work overtime, the barons continue to be the masters of the hospital and, even if workers now have gained some control, they still use the public beds for their own corrupt interests!”
From December ’75 the assemblies began to fight against overtime, demanding an increase of 100,000 lira in basic pay and a weekly working time reduction from 40 to 36 hours with full wage compensation! With the transfer of university workers (36 hours) to regional contracts (40 hours) workers demanded to keep the acquired benefits and to extend them to all other employees. Furthermore, there was a demand for shorter work shifts (the famous ‘small shifts’ / ‘turnetti’) so as to eliminate the pressure to work overtime, to have more free time and to be able to work better in order to realise the humanisation of care.
In February ‘76 we began the actual struggle. In addition to the ex-university workers, many hospital workers were involved, including those in the kitchens and the student nurses. The latter started a regional dispute for the payment of a presalary that spread from the Polyclinic to many other hospitals. The struggle also included the unemployed who, together with all of us, were demanding work and recruitment.
It was a tradition at the Polyclinic that there were no shortage of attacks from the PCI, and after circulating rambling leaflets full of falsehoods, things became more physical… one of the Party’s district councillors, Sartogo, with a provocation that had been planned beforehand, assaulted Daniele, and the next day the union recruited a hundred people who came from all over Rome to stop ‘the climate of violence and provocation created by the servants of the barons and the fascist thugs of the Policlinico collective’ and there was a harsh clash in front of the gates. Many comrades were injured, many workers were stunned by so much violence, but by now the PCI and the union had no more limits and asked the rector to close the workers’ hall and intensify the repression against those who kept up the fight. Two arrest warrants… two more denunciations by a PCI doctor who was offended at being called an ‘asshole’ resulted in comrades having to go into hiding for months!
Using words that follow one another on a sheet of paper, I cannot bring to life the intensity of that period, the social cohesion and bonds that these events created and, more than anything else, the profound changes that, individually, all the protagonists were experiencing!
Close your eyes, put rationality aside and try to give images to my stories…
On the one hand, there were the comrades with their overall life choices, immersed in ideals who could finally confront theory and practice in the realisation of goals they had considered impossible, who day by day saw and noted changes and felt themselves to be the authors of them…
On the other hand there were workers with much more concrete needs who were approaching a way of being which was totally different from their previous lives, from the submission by the boss, to the revenge/power over women and children, to the inability to give in in confrontation with others. Their becoming protagonists required a real and tiring change…
In the daily assemblies, in the demonstrations and even in the clashes with their lifelong enemies… all the participants of this struggle put themselves on the line to walk together towards something different, which fascinated and frightened them at the same time, and to experience an intensity of social connections that was then, as it is now, vital to living!
Some (female) workers separated from their insensitive husbands who were against their growing and developing; others questioned their relationship and tried to involve their children and wives in this new world; others occupied houses with their comrades in the territories; others participated in the self-reduction of bills; all experienced the anti-fascist struggles first-hand, felt united with all the other exploited, clearly identified their enemies; some gave up because they cannot cope with the intensity and hardness of the commitment; others sell off the work they started with themselves to re-align themselves with a colourless mass… Anyone who remembers those times, whatever their path may be later, speaks of them with passion and the different emotions recounted are all intense and so embodied that they turn… into shared images for the listener!
Still other images…. it is precisely these collective experiences that allow a specific growth for the (female) comrades and women of the Polyclinic, from being the majority of employees, the most inclined to care and submission, the most blackmailed and abused, to being the most determined and combative, capable of making important decisions when their comrades are arrested, of taking risks in the first person, of being protagonists of the occupation of the nursery, of refusing compromises and blackmail, arriving in June ’78 to organise and coordinate the occupation of the maternity ward at the obstetrics clinic. The whole collective took part, but the (female) comrades were the glue between the need expressed by women to open a pregnancy termination ward so as ‘not to have any more (risky and illegal) abortions’ and the rest of the hospital, understood both as a public health service that had to apply a law and as a place of resistances against the self-determination of women, their bodies and their freedom of choice.
The law 194 came into effect on the 6th of June ’78 and on the 21st of June a ward was occupied with a well-equipped operating room, which up to that point had always remained unused.
In the evening, the first four women to have an abortion were accepted, in agreement with a midwife doctor, Enzo Maiorana, and occupied the ward to enforce the law. Naturally, everything was prepared with meetings between the collective and feminist comrades who were already working on abortion and applying the Karman method, that of aspiration, as opposed to scraping, which is much more violent and dangerous for women. We immediately began assemblies in the obstetrics clinic, many women workers from other departments, after their shifts, participated in the ward activities, many comrades from the neighbourhoods and feminists engaged in self-managed consultations, made leaflets and made themselves available to broaden the struggle. They talked about women’s bodies, the right to choose and experience pregnancy, they intervened in the delivery room where women are piled up on stretchers and in the obstetrics clinic wards, claiming the right to a ward for women who have just given birth, they organised meetings with women on contraceptives so that they no longer had to suffer the duty of having a child or the randomness of having one. Some women, after having an abortion, wanted to participate in the occupation and help (female) comrades and workers in the management of the ward, which meant, needless to say, the ostracism of the health management and all the barons ‘disturbed’ in their profession! Births are no longer induced [pilotati] and no woman had to pay for assistance, the Karman method was used to perform abortions and feminist comrades taught the doctors how to perform them (out of 132 doctors, only 8 did not declare their objection to the method and today, although the number of gynaecologists has increased, the non-objectors have been further reduced to 3!) The obstetrics clinic is full of women, (female) comrades, posters and banners… there is a wonderful atmosphere of self-management both of the health facility and of the women’s bodies, all personally involved in their own health.
On the 3rd of July, the police arrived and there the first eviction took place, followed by the denunciation of 8 comrades for ‘abuse of profession’; they immediately reoccupied and organised themselves to respond to the incessant demand of women who had to have an abortion and were forced to pay for ‘backroom abortions’ because the hospitals did not implement the law. From that date on, the police would garrison the ward day and night for more than a year for fear of a new occupation, and the hospital management would manage it by drastically reducing the number of operations, putting demotivated and tired staff there, and transferring them from the occupied ward to hidden-away rooms with independent entrances, confirming that abortion must remain, in the collective imagination, a disgrace for those who request it.
By now, the images that my story has produced in your imagination must be overlapping happily, so many faces, so many voices, so many difficulties, so many limitations, so much wealth, so much energy of transformation… it is this baggage that we must reactivate today to defeat, as we did yesterday, albeit with different attacks and new tools, the annihilation violently imposed on our rights to health and life, rediscovering the beauty of sociality, confronting each other on a generational level, and rediscovering that necessary fascination towards change that allows the old to feel young and the young to gain experience to become old!
now part of Cobas health university and research…
before part of the Polyclinic Workers and Students Collective…
and always… a comrade!